Hillsboro Hops alumni get chances in major leagues
First it was Daulton Varsho.
The 24-year-old catcher/outfielder was called up by the Arizona Diamondbacks early in the 2020 season, making his major league debut on July 30.
"It really came out of nowhere," the Chili, Wisconsin, native told WSAW-TV, his hometown news station. "Like, I didn't know it was going to happen, and it kind of caught me off guard, and it was really cool."
Like an ever-growing number of baseball players, Varsho's path to the major leagues included a stop in Hillsboro. Varsho played for the Hillsboro Hops in 2017, his first professional season, batting .311 with seven home runs, 16 doubles, three triples and — a rarity for a catcher — seven stolen bases over 50 games.
If they weren't paying attention before, talent evaluators sat up and took notice. Varsho soon ranked among Arizona's top prospects, and while he professed surprise, his rise to the top level of the sport was only a matter of time.
This past Saturday, Sept. 5, Varsho hit his first major league home run into McCovey Cove outside Oracle Park in San Francisco. No visiting player had ever before splashed one into the cove for their first career home run.
On Aug. 26, it was Riley Smith's turn for a callup.
The Diamondbacks summoned the right-hander to join their bullpen just over four years after he made his professional debut with the Hops.
Smith, now 25, put up a 2.84 ERA over parts of two seasons with the Hops. He was a reliever in 2016, picking up two saves in 25 appearances, but moved into the starting rotation for eight appearances in 2017 before graduating to the Kane County Cougars, the Diamondbacks' next-highest-ranked affiliate.
Next up: Sergio Alcántara, a middle infielder for the Hops in 2015 and 2016.
Alcántara, signed out of the Dominican Republic as an amateur free agent on his 16th birthday, has taken a longer, windier road to the big leagues than Varsho or Smith. He's spent parts of seven seasons in the minor leagues — not counting 2020, in which players on minor league contracts have spent the season working out at a team training facility instead of playing in real minor league games — and isn't with the Diamondbacks, his original organization, anymore.
Alcántara went to the Detroit Tigers in a swap for outfielder J.D. Martinez in 2017. While he's been on the Tigers' 40-man roster since then, he got his first call to suit up for a major league game on Friday, Sept. 4. News reports about his callup were laden with words like "surprise" and "finally."
Unlike Varsho, Alcántara has been known more for his defense than his offense, which might explain why it's taken the 24-year-old so long since joining the professional ranks to get the call to the Show. He batted a modest .263 during his time with the Hops, although he consistently impressed with his glovework at second base and shortstop.
"I've been trying to get better, working hard because I know hitting was my weakness," Alcántara said in a pregame interview, as quoted by The Detroit News. "But I have kept working and I'm getting it stronger."
It didn't take him long to prove it. Alcántara made his major league debut on Sunday, Sept. 6, playing third base and batting ninth for the Tigers — and homered in his first major league plate appearance.
With Varsho, Riley and Alcántara debuting this season, the number of Hops alumni to appear in the major leagues is now 24.
Although it's a shortened season — 60 games instead of 162 — many major league teams have found themselves digging deep into their pool of minor league talent in order to overcome player injuries, COVID-19 quarantines and opt-outs. That's given a player like Alcántara, passed over repeatedly for a promotion in past years, an opening. He was promoted as an extra player in Friday's doubleheader against the Minnesota Twins because starting Tigers shortstop Niko Goodrum was injured earlier in the week, and when Goodrum went on the injured list, he was called up to join the roster for the duration. His debut performance could make him a fixture in Detroit for a while.
While it's not the same as going to Ron Tonkin Field to take in a ballgame as they might in a normal year, it's encouraging for Hops fans to be able to see so many of their old favorites are on television — whether rookies like Varsho working to adjust to a new level, or players who are old pros by now, like Dansby Swanson of the Atlanta Braves and Brad Keller of the Kansas City Royals, who are making a big impact.
While the Hops themselves are nominally still defending champions in the Northwest League, their future is uncertain.
Baseball America and other national publications have reported that MLB intends to take full control over the minor leagues starting with the 2021 season, and two of its goals are to eliminate short-season play — in other words, schedules that start in June, like the Northwest League's does — and contract the number of affiliated minor league teams from 160 to 120.
It's unclear what that could mean for the Hops, who have among the best attendance records in the Northwest League and play in a well-regarded ballpark built just eight years ago. A list of teams slated to lose their affiliations that was leaked months ago didn't have the Hops named among the endangered teams, although Baseball America has reported that list has changed considerably since then and no final list has been revealed.
If Hops management is worried, they're not letting on.
"We are very confident in our long-term future in Oregon and that the changes resulting from the new (professional baseball agreement) will be very positive for the Hops organization and for Hops fans," said team President K.L. Wombacher in June, after the 2020 season was canceled.
Whatever the future holds, the present is an exciting one for the fraternity of former Hops.
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